I watched All That Jazz last night. I saw it in the theater in 1980. And I’ve seen in on video since then. I quite liked it when I first saw it, and my appreciation of it has only grown. But my memory of the time is that the film reviews weren’t that great.
The film reviews generally applauded much of the film — including the dance numbers. After all, it was a Bob Fosse film, and movie “critics” might not know much, but they do know enough to not knock Fosse on that score. But when it comes to films like All That Jazz, you can depend upon these hacks to be more interested in what they bring into the film than what’s up there on the screen.
Of course, now the film is a classic. It tends to happen. Over time, people are better able to see a film on its own terms. And even at the time, it was loved by more sophisticated film goers than the ombudsmen who call themselves critics. It shared the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or with another great film, Kagemusha. And it did garner a lot of Academy Award nominations, but largely lost out to the tiresome Kramer vs Kramer.
I was curious to check out what film reviews said back then.
Film Reviews Then and Now
Wikipedia has an annoying tendency to include a lot of recent film reviews in its “Critical Reception” section. The new film reviews should be classified under “Critical Reputation.” Still, there is some information on the old reviews. The reception among “critics” at the time is pretty well summed up by this quote from Variety, “All That Jazz is a self-important, egomaniacal, wonderfully choreographed, often compelling film.”
But I was surprised to see that many of the more recent film reviews haven’t changed much. Leonard Maltin gave the film 2.5 starts out of 4 — an indication he doesn’t even think it’s good? He called it “self-indulgent” and “negative” and “buried in pretensions.” What?! All works of art are self-indulgent. Do they all have to be “positive”? And “buried in pretensions” is meaningless.
Did You Even Watch the Film?
However, for a perfect example of just how bad film reviews are, you can’t go wrong with with Time Out London. Back in 2008, they published a very brief review. Here is the last third of it:
I hate when people throw around Fellini to explain any kind of film structure that isn’t traditional. It isn’t accurate, although Fellini (along with countless other directors) clearly did influence Fosse. But it’s also unfair to Fellini. He was a lot more than 8½ and Amarcord. But leave that aside.
The end of the sentence is factually wrong: “scenes of a real open-heart operation, alternating with footage of a symbolic Angel of Death in veil and white gloves, fail even in terms of the surreal.” Such a sequence might well fail to be surreal. Of course, no such sequence is in the film. The surgery footage is intercut with the film producers discussing Joe Gideon’s possible death with their insurance company. The conclusion is that if Gideon dies, they will make a half million dollars. I don’t have a simple word for what Fosse was going for — “irony” is close — but “surreal” is not it.
Why Film Reviews Suck
The best film reviews generally reflect a single engaged viewing. Too many involve a distracted viewing. But film reviews like this are so front-loaded with opinions as to be journalistic malpractice. Whoever wrote the review (it has no byline) probably saw the film at some point — maybe when it was first out, 28 years before the review was written. It’s not fair to the film. And it’s not fair to the reader. But that’s what film reviews are all about.